How one group of Chicago-area aftermarket professionals is helping to keep struggling community residents on the road to stable employment.
For a significant portion of the U.S. population, except those in metropolitan areas that have easy access to public transportation, the automobile is the average consumer’s second most valuable investment, aside from their homes. Yet, for some, it’s not just an investment; it can be a lifeline as well.
This was the realization that retired Dana Corp. VP John Tartaglione had one day while talking to his wife, who chairs the West Suburban Jobs Council, an advocacy group for low-income job seekers and the working poor in their county. As Tartaglione and his wife were chatting, he realized that for many Americans, a reliable car is indeed truly a lifeline; a means for getting to that critical interview or job every day, to bring home a paycheck and keep food on the table.
Transportation has consistently been cited as the most significant barrier to employment for low-income residents in suburban areas due to limited public transportation options. This is true especially during non-traditional work hours, which are common for this population that often works in entry-level jobs in the health care, hospitality or restaurant industries.
It was this need that Tartaglione knew the aftermarket industry was perfectly suited to help address. And thus, "Care for Cars" was launched in May 2012 in a Chicago suburb. The group’s mission is to help address this transportation barrier that many low-income residents in DuPage County, Ill., struggle with, and to ensure that these job seekers and employees have reliable transportation to get to work on time.
While Tartaglione humbly says that most of the credit goes to his partners in the project, it was his 35 years in the industry that provided him with the logistical understanding, and the contacts, to create the basic framework for the concept. As he set out to create this non-profit organization, he called upon NAPA, with whom he had developed a strong, 20-year relationship before he retired. A few phone calls and his NAPA contacts in the Chicago market were on board.
Through Care for Cars, a process was created to provide reduced-cost auto repair for low-income job seekers and the working poor. NAPA and Genuine Parts Co., NAPA Auto Parts Stores and NAPA AutoCare facilities agreed to provide reduced costs for both parts and labor. Lang’s Auto Service in Downers Grove, Ill., and Clark’s Car Care in Naperville, Ill., both NAPA AutoCare facilities, agreed to forgo any profit for these repairs, providing quotes at costs that will be economical for clients in the program. Clients are required to pay 20 percent or $200, whichever is less, of the retail value of all repairs. Additional costs have been covered by grassroots community service organizations in the county. Additional funding for the program was provided through Horizon Community Church, the West Suburban Jobs Council and the DuPage Community Foundation.
While it’s easy to see how a benevolence program such as this could take off in any number of communities across the U.S., Tartaglione said the group is intentionally starting off slow, working only in one county in Illinois, where he lives.
"We wanted to keep it as local as possible so it wasn’t overly time-consuming for any of our partners," he said. "In every town we’re moving into our third city in DuPage County we have one installer and a NAPA Auto Care Center that employs ASE-certified mechanics. We have each of these partners in three parts of the county, as well as three human service organizations that assess the need of each applicant to be sure that the individual needs to get his or her car fixed to either maintain employment or find a job. Then, we look to see if it’s feasible to repair the car. When I say ‘we,’ it’s either somebody from the NAPA store or the owner of the repair facility."
When asked how he found the right shops and technicians for the job, he said he relied on recommendations from the NAPA store partners in the area.
"Other programs have probably tried to do this from the bottom up. We’re doing it from the top down," Tartaglione said. "Letting everyone know that everybody has a piece of the action, so to speak."
It was Brian "Waldo" Downing, sales manager for the Downer’s Grove NAPA Auto Parts Store, who recommended Ray Mazeika, of Lang’s Auto Service in Downers Grove, as the right partner to help with repairs.
"When John asked me for a shop recommendation, I immediately picked Ray. Right away, I knew he was the man for the job. Why? His professionalism and honesty and just the way he handles the shop. The job is done right the first time and he doesn’t do what’s unnecessary, and doesn’t oversell people on stuff. We knew he would be honest," said Downing.
"It makes me feel great that we can help someone who is truly in need," he added. "We hear stories of people out there taking advantage of the system who could work, but there are people who are trying to work, they are doing everything right, but they are just having a hard time. Sometimes, people just can’t get ahead in life. Getting help to fix your car is not getting any cheaper. It’s not like the old days."
The clients themselves are selected based on motivation, personal responsibility and financial need and are located through an application process with three DuPage County community-based agency partners: Naperville Cares, Naperville; Walk In Ministry of Hope, Downers Grove; and People’s Resource Center, Wheaton. Once the Care for Cars board of directors receives an application, they review the request based solely on the viability of the repair to be sure it is a worthwhile investment based on the age, mileage and type of repair needed. Almost half of all requests are rejected, and those applicants are referred to another non-profit program called "Ways to Work," which provides low-interest car loans to purchase pre-screened used cars.
In just a little more than a year, the group has assisted approximately 50 individuals. Mazeika estimates that he has personally been involved in roughly 15 of those repairs, so far.
"We like helping people who really need help," Mazeika says. "It’s a great thing to get people back on the road, and you can see how happy they are. It’s a good thing. And we do gain as well. We’ve had some people come back when they see how great our customer service is. We’re not going to adjust our customer service level because they are a customer, too."
Matt Weber, owner of Clark’s Car Care in Naperville, says he was honored when Tim Scanlan from NAPA and Tartaglione asked him to be involved as well.
"We have been very involved in the community since we opened our shop in 2001," Weber said. "Various car clinics, church cars programs, moms clubs, garden clubs, various goodwill repairs for community, fundraisers for a local animal adoption shelter, repairing cars for donations to the facility. I believe that if you give to your community, your community will take care of you.
"I love being involved (with Care for Cars). It’s part of business," Weber added. "It’s a win-win situation for all. Though days at the shop are not always smooth, when I think of the families we have helped, it makes the day go a little smoother."